Commuting is perhaps the overlooked ill of modern life. Countless people do it. Millions of hours are spent daily trailing to and from work. A necessary evil that keeps the world ticking over. But what price on the nation’s psyche? The time lost, separated from loved ones, crammed together but ignoring those around us. Collective silence, all thinking ‘Let’s just get this over with.’
Sure, we can read (yea!), update statuses, play games or, heaven forbid, do more work, but it’s hardly relaxing. It’s essentially dead time; hours stolen from our lives. And that’s without the system having one of its regular failures. I’m not aware of other attempts at critiquing the commute, but that’s what Dominic Utton’ does with his acerbic and accurate Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time.
Dan is a tabloid journalist who commutes five times a week from Oxford to London, a foolhardy distance to rely on a consistent service. Fed up with paying over the odds for an appalling service, and a lover of words, he starts to write emails to the head of ‘Premier Westward Trains’ complaining about not only late trains but the parlous state of the world generally. His aim with each letter is to waste exactly the amount of Martin’s time as Premier Westward has stolen from him.
What follows is a modern epistolary novel centred around Dan’s feelings of powerlessness. Dan recently became a father, and parenthood is not coming easy to him or his wife. His paper ‘The Globe’ becomes the centre of a hacking scandal, whilst at the same time a rebellion in North Africa is becoming increasingly bloody.
The letters start off jovial, but as his marriage begins to crumble and his job security is less and less assured, Dan’s missives start to reek of desperation. All the time Martin’s replies remain composed and professional, with just the occasional piece of avuncular advice or discreet inquiry into a piece of tabloid scandal. Dan’s depiction of commuting and the characters that ride with him will strike a chord with most people who use the trains on a regular basis. As will the pedantic accuracy of Martin’s replies. Not to mention the delightfully obfuscating language he uses to dress up common (avoidable) problems to sound like major catastrophes (these are probably funnier in context, so I won’t spoil them for you).
The juxtaposition of Dan’s work/home balance and the travails of the populace of the unnamed African country works well. The Globe’s obsession with celebrity and Dan’s own fixation with the trains feel shallow up against a nation in turmoil, yet 95% of the time these are the things we worry about.
The novel’s middle third was over-long, and I started to fear that the book as whole wouldn’t live up to the quality of its premise. Fortunately, Utton brings things back on track (ahem) and the various strands of Dan’s missive’s reach if not happy endings, then certainly satisfactory conclusions. MHAoT is a witty chronicle of one of the most frustrating aspects of modern life. Delayed trains may be a bit of a first-world problem, but Utton’s novel is a first rate way to combat your frustrations. A free copy given out with every season ticket purchased would go some way to easing the pain. A tonic that might even last until the second week of January…
Many Thanks to Henry at Oneworld books for agreeing to send me a copy of this book, in face of my usual shameless begging.